“You never know when your wave is going to come and if you’re going to catch it,” says Amelia Nardinelli, founder of Con Todo, a boutique graphic design studio that launched in March. She smiles as she moves her water bottle across the conference table to shield my recorder from her view. We’re in her sunny workspace in downtown Oakland. The office looks like many other Bay Area environments with exposed brick walls, open plan standing desks, and thick wood slab tables in the meeting rooms. The businesses that call this energized square footage home are populated by architects and designers — and Nardinelli’s bookshelf is filled with design bibles and collections of poster art. Pippa, Nardinelli’s dog, who greeted me at the elevator, now naps under our feet.
“Con Todo means ‘with everything,’” the half-Nicaraguan Nardinelli explains. “It’s a motto for how I do things, with a lot of creativity and passion and energy — with everything.” Nardinelli has worked as a designer for art institutions, startups, and corporations like JPMorgan Chase. When the opportunity arose to start her own agency, she grabbed it. “The stars aligned,” she says. “I feel like it was always in me.”
Nardinelli is drawn to all things visual. She grew up in Berkeley, surrounded by artists, activists and designers. “I had a random love of letters,” she remembers. “Old signage, commercial graphics, advertising — I was drawn to it in a way that the children around me weren’t.”
Nardinelli graduated from California College of the Arts with a BA in Graphic Design in 2002, and started job hunting in the post-dotcom-bubble Bay Area. Her first break came with American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, where she worked for seven years, making her way up to art director. “I thought, wow, I could actually create posters and get messy and do art for other artists,” she says. At A.C.T., she created “larger-than-life” marketing campaigns. One campaign for David Mamet’s play November included an animated TV spot featuring a cheeky illustrated turkey running around a colorful, flattened version of Washington DC. It earned her — together with A.C.T.’s marketing department and the animator who transformed her still illustrations into moving video — an Emmy nomination for best commercial in 2010.
After ACT, Nardinelli became Creative Director at Bloomspot, an online offers startup that sent its subscribers deals for local businesses. She dove into the business of web design, going from “pretty much all print to all digital.” At Bloomspot, without an established brand to maintain, she took risks and tested new concepts rapidly. “Once things are in print, they’re in print,” she explains. “But with a website you can make changes and experiment.” Nardinelli translated the ambitious goals of the young startup into a compelling visual aesthetic. She applied the colorful yet sophisticated brand image she created across platforms and materials — an image-rich mobile app, vibrant marketing collateral, playful email campaigns, and even a branded handkerchief scarf with a geometric honeycomb pattern in the brand’s bright colors.
“The beauty of learning as you go at a startup is that we were all doing that,” she declares. Over time, Nardinelli dropped Photoshop for more web-minded software programs like Sketch (which she now uses almost exclusively) and learned a new set of user-experience standards to design for web. Learning as they went paid off for Bloomspot, which JPMorgan Chase acquired for $35 Million in 2012. Nardinelli transitioned into a position within Chase: first on the Chase Offers team, creating a similar product to Bloomspot for Chase customers, and later as a founding designer for an internal design agency called Inner Circle.
At Inner Circle, Nardinelli designed web graphics, direct mail campaigns and event graphics for products like Chase credit cards and home mortgages. In contrast to the startup world where “there were no stop signs, and we just went,” Chase’s corporate empire required many layers of approval and projects moved at a slower pace. Jasper Malcolmson, founder and CEO of Bloomspot who became SVP, Solutions & Innovations at Chase after the acquisition, describes Nardinelli’s chameleon-like ability to deploy her “raw visual design talent” at the bureaucratic bank as successfully as at his startup. “A lot of designers can, very simply, be difficult to work with,” he explained to me over the phone. “It’s the combination of her significant capabilities plus being an effective collaboration partner that makes Amelia different.”
Today, branding — or “giving a company voice and character,” as she puts it — is where Nardinelli gets in her zone. Many of Con Todo’s current clients, including a startup working to streamline legal processes around love and marriage, are getting the full branding treatment: logo, fonts, colors, illustrations, website layout, brand voice. For Nardinelli, design is storytelling and these branding elements are essential for crafting a compelling narrative.
Sharing ideas and spreading stories started for Nardinelli with the activist community in which she was raised. Her mother, Gail Dolgin, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, influenced her. Nardinelli was inspired by the way she “related to other people, connected with whomever she was talking to, and was continually curious.” Nardinelli keeps one foot in this community by working with many filmmakers to help them spread their message and improve their visibility. “It’s such a vivacious and inspiring community,” she says, before qualifying, “It’s not the most lucrative. But, it’s a satisfying community to work with because they care so deeply about what they’re doing.”
Intention is at the heart of design for Nardinelli. Pausing to gather her thoughts, she asserts that good design “evokes a specific emotion, which leads to a specific action.” The client may have ideas about how to achieve that outcome, but it is the responsibility of the designer to find the most effective way there. Good graphic designers listen and then analyze the client’s goals, assessing the best strategy to drive the desired emotions and actions.
Throughout her career, Nardinelli has widened her definition of graphic design. While she used to describe graphic design as “anything that incorporates words and images,” she now sees it as “more experiential and fluid.” Design today is a conversation with the viewer, rather than a monologue. This collaborative process conjoins not only designer and developer, but also intended and real audiences. Working with Con Todo’s current clients, Nardinelli is no longer in the world of posters. “There’s more movement in design today,” she says. “It’s a call and response, not a static thing.”